Torque, an 8-year-old Appaloosa gelding, stands in a round pen designated the Hot Zone. Dotted with non-toxic finger paint to imitate the ravages of chemical contamination, he calmly waits while the HAZMAT team suits up. But this is all in a day's work for Torque. He's a highly trained victim, and for the rest of the weekend, he will be decon-ed, roped, lifted, and repeatedly saved.
This is day one of the four-day Technical Large Animal Rescue Training course (TLAR), which is being conducted at Eastern Kentucky University. Sponsored largely by USRider, an equestrian Triple AAA, and taught by the Drs. Rebecca and Tomas Gimenez, the course aims to teach emergency responders the most efficient techniques to save oversized animals in catastrophic situations. The work, says Rebecca, has been 15 years in the making. "Tomas went to a conference in 1993 and he realized that the 20 people across the world who knew anything about large-animal rescue where there, and they didn't know much," she says. "He also realized they had no clue about horse behavior."
Day one kicked off with a special session on HAZMAT decontamination. First volunteers from the Kentucky Large Animal Emergency Response group briefed students on the many tools of decon, from suits to field guides. Then teams assembled to simulate a response situation. Teams were given water for hydration and had vitals taken before being taped into protective suits. They were taught to correctly approach a panicked horse, and then used water, brushes, and cloths to remove the faux hazardous substance. Safety-for both animal and human-was the operative word.
Equine decon is not common, "but there are practical applications," says Tomas. "Septic tank falls are very common, and there are all kinds of hazardous materials in that," he says. Other possible equine HAZMAT situations include swamps, floods, and gasoline from trailer wrecks.
In the end, the students found the demo eye opening. "Scrubbing the animal was the easy part," noted one participant. Keeping him calm was much harder." Added another, "I was just hoping my crinkly suit sounded like a treat bag."
Tomorrow: freedom from the mud
About 30 students gathered, one from as far away as Oregon, for part two of the four-day Technical Large Animal Rescue training course (TLAR) being held at Eastern Kentucky University. Today's exercise had students divided into five teams to practice confined-space rescue and review the fundamental tools used in transportation accidents, such as a wrecked or overturned trailer.
Once again Torque and Ariel, the 8-year-old equines owned by co-instructor Dr. Rebecca Gimenez, were ready participants, willing to stand tethered and lie down on command so that students could practice a backward drag, a sideways drag, and a roll to liberate a horse cast in a stall or trailer.
Safety and common sense were again emphasized. "Whatever you do, do it from the outside," said teacher Dr. Tomas Gimenez, "never enter the rescue environment If there is no obvious entry, try a window, or get the fire department to create access."
"Oh, they love to cut things," joked Rebecca.
The Drs demonstrated some simple ways to protect an animal's eyes--which are often forgotten--and reminded students that a horse's head and neck weigh about 300 pounds and are very fragile parts.
Students were impressed with the viability of low-tech tools, which included rope-like webbing, extension poles, boat hooks, and a cane to snare a leg or tail. "I never thought you could do all that stuff with just a few little things," said Rob Horning, an EKU student majoring in criminal justice.
"I love the practical application of things," added Emily Brediger, a pre-vet student at Ohio's Otterbein University. " I think that's key in an emergency situation. Even if you're not formally trained, you need to have some common sense to look at the aids you do have and say, "What can we do with this?"
Brediger plans to use her TLAR training to conduct a seminar to raise awareness about the program. "Wayne County, where I'm from, has just as many livestock as it does people, and I though, in the event of a disaster, this training was not as well known as it should be."
Lastly Tomas, himself a veterinarian, reminded these future emergency responders that your rescue is also a medical patient and should be treated as such. "One of the most important things is to assess the animal," he said. "You must consider how will the rescue effect the patient?" Emergency first aid, such as fluids or oxygen will often make the difference in whether or not the animal survives post rescue. "Mud won't kill a horse," he added, "but hypothermia will.
Tomorrow: Bringing out the heavy artillery
Friday was a dark and stormy night in Lexington, Ky., and Saturday's seemingly gale force winds put a crimp in The Technial Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER) training onging at Eastern Kentucky University. A planned mud rescue was rescheduled for Sunday, when better weather promised to prevail. Nevertheless, after yesterday's session of simple tools, like long poles and cames, it was time for a little heavy artillery.
Battling the dipping temps, teams constructed a huge A-Frame attached to an intricate collection or ropes, pulleys, and slings, to practice a vertical lift, which would be used to extricate an animal from, say, a ditch or a drain pipe. "Anywhere that you have made the decision that the only way to get the animal is by going straight up," says TLAER's Dr. Tomas Gimenez.
Ariel, the 8-year-old paint mare trained by Dr. Rebecca Gimenez, was today's stunt horse. She is one of four highly trained equines the Drs use for TLAER training. "She does this for a living," says Tomas. "But in a real situation, you would not do this on a horse without sedation."
During the exercise, Tomas stresses the importance of teamwork, as one set of workers pull, another set must let out rope. For every 15 feet of rope pulled, Ariel will only rise one foot, "so you must ready and you must be quick," he adds.
Teamwork is something the Gimenezes know a lot about. Once married, they are now co-workers fiercely dedicated to the TLAER program. "I worked for Tomas at Clemson University, where he taught, and at some point we got married," says Rebecca, who holds a Ph.D in animal physiology. "I'm also in the military (she is currently a Major in the U.S. Army Reserves) and so both of us had a specific skill set that pulled together this program."
Together they teach seven to eight Operational level courses (geared toward professionals) throughout the year. "But we are now doing Awareness classes," says Tomas. "We realized it wasn't necessary to do the full three-day class for normal horse owners."
Back at the training site, Ariel's journey from faux gully (really a driveway) to terra firma has gone well. "What's important," says Tomas, "is that this group of people keep this alive. You can't say, ‘Oh, I took that three years ago and never did it again,' because you will forget. They need to keep learning and practicing."
On the last day of TLAER training students gathered over morning coffee to review the search and rescue effort that took place the night before.
As dark fell on Saturday night temps dropped into the low 40s and a soft rain fell over the EKU campus. Instructor Dr. Rebecca Gimenez then hid Torque, the 8-year-old gelding, out in the forest. The 911-call would say an injured horse was lost in the woods. Teams had to find Torque, sedate him, splint a (faux) fractured leg, and ease the 1,200-pound equine onto a rescue glide for evac.
"It was a blast," said Deke Carls, a veterinary student and volunteer firefighter from the Quad City area of Illinois. "Our group found him. It was great exposure, and we were able to put everything we've been learning into one scenario." The team, he added, was undaunted by the frigid wind and rain "Emergencies happen in bad whether, its best to train in it."
On Sunday the stages was set for the final rescue efforts: and overturned trailer, a horse stuck in the mud, and--maybe the piece de resistance--evacuating horses from a burning barn.
Ariel and Torque were bystanders for the trailer crash and mud rescue, which, for safety, used a crash-test equine mannequin and a makeshift water horse--really a 35-gallon tub filled with water that has a head and wooden legs attached.
Students learned to utilize mud lances (tubes that can add air or water into the mud and break the suction holding a horse down) and a Nickopoulus needle (a curved rod that can snake webbing around a horse's torso for evacuation) during a mud or quicksand rescue. "The most important thing is not to get a person stuck in the mud too," said Rebecca.
For the last exercise of the day, a blaze was simulated in a darkened storage building and firefighters were sent in to rescue Torque, Ariel, and Dexter the llama. No bit of detail was spared: Non-toxic, water-based Fog Juice replicated the fire, students donned full gear, including facemasks and an infrared camera, the EKU fire engine sounded its sirens and air horns, and one student even acted the role of the frantic horse owner calling 911. All of the animals were removed in under nine minutes.
After receiving their certifications, many of the students were eager to get home and begin or enhance large animal rescue programs in their areas.
"One of our first priorities when we get back is the mud dummy," said Major Brandon Bagwell, Executive Officer of the Fayette County Technical Rescue Team in Piperton, TN. "The other thing is we're going to enhance our equipment cash, so to speak. We've got plenty of equipment, but there's so much we've learned about it this class--the mud lances, the Nickopoulous needles. We have learned a lot that we can bring back to our program and build on."